Review: Terminator Genisys (2015)

Terminator Genisys

Rating

Director
Alan Taylor
Screenplay
Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Length
126 min.
Starring
Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matt Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Byung-hun Lee, Michael Gladis, Sandrine Holt
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language

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Review
After thirty-one years, the Terminator franchise still has a lot of fans. Their fascination with the world that James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd created is one of the reasons the franchise continues to find success in reboots, sequels and television programs. Terminator Genisys represents the culmination of the studio’s attempt to revive the franchise for a new generation, but the results are so mixed, it’s hard to believe a sequel is possible.

Not entirely writing out the third and fourth films, Genisys focuses on paralleling the first and second films. During the original, a Terminator (played then by Arnold Schwarzeneggar) goes back in time to hunt down and kill Sarah Connor (played then by Linda Hamilton), who is destined to give birth to the man who will command the rebellion that ultimately topples the corrupt computer program and artificial intelligence, SkyNet, that created the Terminators in the first place. The second film saw the original Terminator attempting to protect that son (then played by Edward Furlong).

As this film opens, the future war against SkyNet is about to be won, but SkyNet won’t go down without a fight and sends back the Terminator of the first film to carry out the task assigned to it. This time, Sarah Connor’s grown son John Connor (here played by Jason Clarke) finds volunteer Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to send back to stop the Terminator. When he arrives in 1984, he discovers that the past has already been re-written when Sarah Connor (here played by Emilia Clarke) arrives to rescue him from another Terminator sent back to stop him from stopping the original Terminator.

If you haven’t seen the first or second film, this timeline can get murky fast, which is confusing as a starting point for any potential new fan of the franchise. Screenwriters Laeta Kalgoridis and Patrick Lussier try very hard to retain the time line of the original while making this time-bending fifth film easy to follow. They are largely successful, but the script spends so much time winking at itself that it’s hard to find much of what happens entirely credible.

Not helping in that endeavor are the film’s stars. Emilia Clarke (no relation to co-star Jason), who this year received her second Emmy Award nomination for Game of Thrones tries to add some level of gravitas to an underwritten role. That fact is rather galling since there’s such a rich history to the character including a TV series that lasted two seasons. What’s presented here, though, is a boiled-down version that adopts many of the familiar kick-ass female tropes that have made women seem strong, but only as long as they are rescued and emotionally saved by a stronger man.

In this case, that man is played Courney whose role in Divergent and its sequel, has yet to present the guise of a credible actor. Here he’s stiff, forced and unnecessarily cocky. How anyone could fall in love with this type of man outside of a script convention is impossible to fathom. He and Clarke have zero charisma. Jason Clarke isn’t much improved, but he digs so deep into stereotype that his performance is frequently ham-fisted.

Which makes what I’m about to say very difficult. Schwarzeneggar, a man who could barely be classified as an actor, especially considering his abysmal output of the 1980’s and 1990’s, is much better than anyone ever expected. His character is one of limited dimension. He’s an automaton who doesn’t understand pop culture or human civilization in spite of being surrounded by it for so long. Yet, he continues to struggle with emotional complexity. He doesn’t often display a range of sentiments that approximate human emotion, but under that fine veneer of tarnishing chrome, Schwarzeneggar presents a vivid entity whose connection to Sarah Connor is deep, resonant and utterly believable.

It might be easy to push the problems of the film on director Alan Taylor whose only other recent exploit on the big screen was the deceptively weak Thor: The Dark World. Yet, when you look over his long television career directing episodes for legendary series like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Sopranos and even as far back as Homicide: Life on the Streets, you realize just how much of a weakness the screenplay is or at least how involved the studio was in pushing their own vision. There are glimmers of inventiveness here, namely in the scenes set in the far future, but the overall style and execution of the film is unreasonably convoluted and sometimes inexplicably defeatist.

Having tried to avoid Schwarzeneggar for the better part of my adult life (I’ll admit to having seen a handful of his 1980’s comedies), I came to this franchise very late in the process. To an extent, I’m sorry that it took me so long. As with the Alien films, Terminator and its first sequel turned out to be a surprisingly compelling and fascinating look at our society’s future destination. While Terminator Genisys only tackles a small portion of that frequently altering timeline, it still provides a suitable and sometimes engaging bit of entertainment.
Spoiler Discussion
One of the big issues I had with this film is that it inexplicably and unnecessarily turned one of the franchise’s most important characters, John Connor, into a villain. It wasn’t a Replicant or a possession, it was an outright corruption. The film presents this as SkyNet developing a new, more complex neural signature that enables it to inject living cybernetic tissue into a target and corrupt that individual without recourse. This is very sloppy writing. First of all, it strips a popular and intriguing character of his humanity, removing forever a key protagonist in the fight against SkyNet.

Why did they need to corrupt this individual and why not corrupt more, for example Kyle Reese. I understand that for dramatic purposes, it’s important to occasionally turn a good character bad. However, it seems like a weak attempt to creating drama where it isn’t needed. What might have been more fascinating is if the process were reversible, that they could have stopped him from being corrupted in the first place or that in trying to save John so he could lead the rebellion, Kyle has to sacrifice himself for the greater good. There are myriad directions the script could have gone. The way it played out may make sense to a large extent, but it’s an ultimately lazy and uninventive way of driving the narrative.

As another aside, it’s rather amusing to note that Doctor Who is SkyNet. Matt Smith, who spent three seasons as The Doctor on the long-running BBC series Doctor Who, plays the future version of SkyNet. It would certainly explain why there’s so much time travelling going on.
Oscar Prospects
Potentials: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects

Review Written

August 7, 2015

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